Sylvain de Margerie is the founder and president of Food for Thought, an organization that offers free meals to food-insecure individuals. With the help of volunteer chefs, de Margerie works hard to prepare hundreds of meals every day to those in need. Apt613 spoke to him via Zoom about his work. This interview has been edited and condensed.
According to Food for Thought, “About 7 per cent of food-insecure people cannot cook for a variety of reasons, despite being lodged. This includes being sheltered without a kitchen or food service, or not being able to cook because of age or disability.”
Ottawa’s Food for Thought (FFT) is an organization that provides free meals to those on low incomes and for whom preparing meals is a challenge. A former entrepreneur and executive, FFT’s founder and president Sylvain de Margerie has been volunteering for more than five years to put food on the table for those unable to do so themselves.
“Being an entrepreneur or a businessman applies to really any field,” says de Margerie. “You gain experience doing things, solving problems […] but it’s always as the leader of an enterprise, you’re always solving problems and interacting with people, cajoling them to get to do what the corporation needs to do. It’s always interactive with people and finding a way to give them inspiration so we all do the same thing. So, all that experience translates exactly into doing charity, which is what I do now.”
Before the pandemic, Food for Thought was a local internet café open in the evenings. Everything was free, from computers to coffee, and they served a full dinner. They closed on March 13 of last year and haven’t reopened since. Within a day, the café’s patrons who de Margerie knew had difficult living situations became instantly food-insecure.
“As soon as COVID hit, it was a complete nightmare for them,” says de Margerie. “Some of them lived in shelters without kitchens. I had already identified that as a problem. These people are on welfare or sometimes, less than welfare. If their house is without a kitchen, are they supposed to be able to afford takeout every night? Or go out to a restaurant?”
The day after the café’s closure, FFT started distributing what was left in the refrigerators of local restaurants for free. A few days later, they’d cook what was in the fridge of the partner restaurants and distribute that as well.
Within a week, Joe Thottungal, Coconut Lagoon’s award-winning chef and de Margerie’s friend, offered FFT one of his closed restaurant kitchens to prepare meals. Since then, volunteer chefs, friends of de Margerie, and anyone else he knew have come into the kitchen to make 800 to 1,000 meals every day.
That has been a transition for FFT. Very early on, Ottawa Public Health identified them as an essential service, and they’ve been interacting with people more since COVID began than ever before.
“A year ago, we were driving in our van through the streets of Ottawa and there was nobody there,” says de Margerie. “From the very beginning, we were still going around and delivering meals following all of the protocols. None of us got sick—let’s touch wood. We’re very careful, we don’t take this lightly. For us, since COVID it has been extremely busy, we haven’t stayed at home for a single day because we have to cook a thousand meals every day. Our experience of COVID is very unique. It’s all good; I think we’re all happy to help people.”
One of the things FFT wants to explore is to offer their meals at a reasonable price for people who can afford them. They hope that for each meal that they sell on the open market, they’ll be able to take that same meal and give it to someone who can’t afford it.
“When you give money to a charity, you have to trust that they will do the right thing with it,” says de Margerie. “I want to sell a meal that the buyer tastes and finds it absolutely delicious and assure him that the person in need gets the same thing.”